The Reactionary Trap
It’s not just a right-wing phenomenon. Thinkers on the left, beware.
I found James Lindsay’s Twitter account in March, just after finishing a book he co-authored about “how activist scholarship made everything about race, gender, and identity.” Like me, Lindsay considered himself a left-leaning liberal critical of the progressive turn towards identity politics. But the man I found on Twitter was not the level-headed fellow traveler that I expected. Online, Lindsay was engaged in a crusade against what he saw as society’s paramount menaces: critical theory and radical progressivism.
Looking through Lindsay’s Twitter history is like watching a train coming off its tracks. In 2018, Lindsay’s critiques of the left were mostly constrained to measured and thoughtful commentary. Now, alarmism predominates. Towards the end of 2021, he warned that “a literal death cult is running the Western world (into the ground) right now” and claimed that “Critical Theory approaches to education are meant to psychologically damage your children so they can be used in a revolution that will rob us all of our freedom.” He has gone so far as to declare that “inclusion,” “covid policy,” and “justice” are trojan horses for communism.
While Lindsay’s evolution is particularly striking, he is just one of a growing number of prominent reactionaries coming from the political left. Given that reactionaries can come from across the political continuum, each of us—particularly those of us on the left who have assumed that reactionaries always originate from the right—needs to take seriously the fact that we are vulnerable to the pitfalls of reactionary politics. After all, if we do not know the reactionary trap even exists, how are we to avoid falling in?
A reactionary is someone with extreme opposition to dramatic social or political change. Sometimes, of course, dramatic change is destructive, and opposition to it is often justified. What distinguishes the reactionary is that they end up making two key intellectual mistakes:
Becoming so preoccupied with who or what they are against that the foundation of their politics is reflexive opposition rather than first principles or reason.
Vastly inflating the threat of whatever it is that they oppose, driving responses disproportionate to the scale of the harms they critique.
These mistakes, which I will call “opposition politics” and “threat inflation,” lead reactionaries to conjure up an imaginary phantom and adopt extreme tactics to fight it, tossing nuance aside in the process.
It is not hard to see why decent people can succumb to reactionary sympathies. Reactionaries truly believe that, in the words of historian Mark Lilla, “whether the society reverses direction or rushes to its ultimate doom depends entirely on their resistance.” What room is there for restraint if someone believes they are society’s last bulwark against ultimate doom?
Reactionary anti-communist movements in the 20th century are a good example of understandable but harmful reactionary movements. It is easy to grasp how people threatened by the boot of authoritarian communism might react with fervent opposition. But in taking this reaction too far, and leaning into hysteria and extremism, these movements ended up making terrible mistakes of their own.
Ezra Klein, a New York Times columnist who has previously written about political reaction, made similar points over email: “Any time of profound social change will create reactionary counterpressures. I don't even think that's a bad thing. It all depends on the change, and the reaction. The question is really how people individually navigate those currents, and the nuance demanded by, well, life.”
This inability to navigate currents of change with nuance is the reactionary’s fatal flaw. And that flaw is particularly evident among the category of reactionaries who made a similar transformation as Lindsay—from (at least moderately) thoughtful left-leaning thinker to culture warrior.
Among this group is the popular political pundit Dave Rubin, whose upcoming book, Don't Burn This Country, is being marketed as “a guide for anyone who wants to revive the American dream while the woke mob tries to burn down the country.” The book itself claims that “the dystopian future we’ve been warned of is here.” Don’t Burn represents well how Rubin has blundered into the twin reactionary mistakes of opposition politics (against the “woke mob”) and threat inflation (claiming that we are living in a dystopia—which, thankfully, we are not).
None of this is to trivialize the excesses of the left—those are, in good part, the reasons Persuasion was founded and why I have written multiple articles criticizing progressive overreach. But there is a necessary distinction between measured criticism and hysteric reaction.
Rubin is not the only left-leaning thinker who has fallen prey to the latter. Tim Pool, the independent journalist and pundit who has taken to disseminating blatantly misleading information about vaccine efficacy, is one example. So is Bret Weinstein, the former Evergreen State College professor, who claims that the potential harm of identity politics is “virtually unlimited. It could make white-ethno-naionalism [sic] mainstream. It could spark a depression (or worse). It could start a civil war.”
While I am sympathetic to arguments against vaccine mandates and identity politics, Pool and Weinstein have succumbed to the pitfalls of reactionary politics. In becoming so preoccupied with a political or social change that they oppose, and in so magnifying its harm, they have stumbled into conspiracy theorizing and alarmism.
The recognition that no one, regardless of political persuasion, is immune to reactionary tendencies should leave us all asking the uncomfortable question: have I, too, fallen into the reactionary trap?
There is no clear-cut answer to such a subjective question. Still, many thinkers have managed to oppose certain forms of social change without becoming reactionary themselves. Whereas reactionaries are guided by reflexive opposition, these thinkers are driven by a positive vision and substantive principles. Whereas reactionaries inflate threats to the point of hysteria, these thinkers maintain a sense of proportion. I emailed several of them for advice on steering clear of a reactionary mindset. Here are the five best recommendations that came from those conversations.
Do not let the illusions of social media trick you. Matthew Yglesias, who writes the political newsletter Slow Boring and co-founded Vox, told me that “the set of people who talk a lot about politics on the internet is much, much, much, much more left-wing than the American electorate. At the same time, the structure of American political institutions … [means that] electoral outcomes are meaningfully to the right of the actual electorate.” This dynamic, according to Yglesias, leads reactionaries to lose “sight of who in fact holds power in the United States” and respond “primarily to vibes on Twitter rather than to the realities of the political situation.”
Learn to recognize and avoid “us-vs-them” thinking. This tribalist instinct leads to hostility and reflexive opposition towards those deemed the “other.” Chloé Valdary, the founder of an anti-racist and diversity training company, said that “to escape an us-vs-them mindset, it's [...] helpful to be able to pause and ask yourself when you've entered into a counter-dependent relationship with someone or some idea, where your identity has become dependent upon countering someone else.”
Be skeptical of convenient narratives. Ben Dreyfuss, a journalist who writes a newsletter called Good Faith, told me that he tries to interrogate his “beliefs to see if they are conforming to easy narratives. And if they are, I try to push back against myself more […] whenever it looks to me like people are reaching hardened consensuses because of social media mobs I have a knee jerk ‘slow down and think about this.’”
Avoid the “zeal of the convert.” Newcomers to a philosophy often take it to an extreme. Zaid Jilani, a journalist who has worked for various progressive organizations and now writes a newsletter called INQUIRE, told me that people shouldn’t “be shy about being open-minded and being willing to change their beliefs. But they should consider the idea that jumping from one extreme to another is unwise because there may be just as many flaws to the other side as there were to the one you originally were on.”
Take seriously the possibility that you are wrong. This is by far the most common bit of advice that I received. Valdary said that “everyone is susceptible to self-deception, because we are all human beings. It's not a left/right thing”; Dreyfuss told me that “you don’t need to be right all the time but the one thing you do owe people is attempting to be intellectually honest”; and Jilani said that it is important “to be curious and be vigilant about flaws in your own thinking.”
Reactionary politics is an easy trap to fall into these days, given that so much of what is deemed progress is really the opposite. Ultimately, however, reactionaries do more harm than good. We do not need them, or the alarmism and hysteria in which they often indulge, to save us. Nuance, principles, and moderation will do just fine.
Seth Moskowitz is an associate editor at Persuasion.